Children’s literature is a big deal. Timeless life lessons, great illustrations – all really precious stuff. Unfortunately, kiddy lit is also a big money maker, which is why movie studios so often play fast and furious with classic stories, bastardizing our treasured childhood memories in the process. The downfall of these films is usually attributed to one thing: “hipping up” the story. These books are favorites for a reason. No amount of modern day slang, political asides or creepy stage makeup (I’m looking at you, Johnny Depp) can hope to improve what was already there. Nevertheless, every once in a while Hollywood gets it right, and the latest film adapted from the genius Dr. Seuss, “Horton Hears a Who!” manages to make for a pretty decent trip down memory lane.

The film, like Seuss’s book, is the story of Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey), a dim-witted, yet well-intentioned elephant who discovers an entire city, small enough to fit on a speck of dust, inhabited by the mysterious Whos. Sadly, the film declines to answer any of those burning Who-related questions: Is Whoville really the only city they have? Why are they so happy all of the time? What exactly are they? They don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but still. It’s of little concern for Whoville Mayor Ned O’Malley (Steve Carell, TV’s “The Office”) as he’s a little pre-occupied with the earthquakes, random changes in weather and other disasters caused by the city’s unstable position perched upon, you know, a speck of dust. Horton promises to find a safe place for the Whos, even though there’s a cranky kangaroo and an angry mob out to get them.

One of the main draws of big budget animated films is the cast, and “Horton” doesn’t disappoint: Amy Poehler (“Mean Girls”), Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers”) and the seemingly inescapable combo of Jonah Hill (“Superbad”) and Seth Rogan (“Knocked Up”), are just a few of the recognizable voices coming out of those adorably vibrant creatures. Surprisingly, Carrey, who can be an exasperating on-screen presence, is considerably more bearable when you only have to listen to him. It’s unclear who he had to bribe in order to slip in a few of those “Mask”-esque voice impressions, but luckily, they’re kept to a minimum. The only real disappointment is the usually excellent Will Arnett (TV’s “Arrested Development”) as a typically inept villain, Vlad. Arnett uses a weird and often incomprehensible accent for Vlad, which just seems like a little too much (and that’s saying something considering Arnett is acting against Mr. Ace Venture himself).

With so many famous voices, the most surprising star of the film is the animation. We’ve come a long way since Dr. Seuss’s pen-and-ink, sparsely colored illustrations. Inexplicably, there’s a bizarre, anime-like sequence where Horton goes Bruce Lee on someone’s ass, but it graciously lasts for a limited time and the rest of the film’s aesthetic is highly impressive. Critics raved about the animation in “Ratatouille,” but “Horton” puts those rats to shame.

Yet, the animation is just one of the many things that puts “Horton” on a level above typical kiddy flicks. Little touches, like the Mayor’s moody son rocking an emo-swoop haircut or a sequence that is a dead ringer for a scene from “The Lion King,” keeps the film engaging. So I suppose not all children’s book adaptations are bad news, but don’t think I’m not protesting the upcoming “Where the Wild Things Are” movie. Come on, that shit is sacred.

3-1/2 Stars

Horton Hears A Who

At Quality 16 and Showcase

20th Century Fox

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